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The Philosophy of Leadership from a West Point Cow

I recently had the pleasure of getting to know Cadet Jeffrey Reffert. Jeffrey is a former Enlisted Soldier who served with the 2nd Psychological Operations Group from 2014-2016. He is currently finishing up his Cow (junior) year at West Point and at the end of May will start his Firstie (Senior Year). As a thinker and life long learner Jeffery is committed to writing down his leadership lessons to both benefit himself and others. Expect to hear more from this prolific thinker, writer, and networker.


Introduction

President Theodore Roosevelt once said, “The credit belongs to the man in the arena, whose face is marred by dust, and sweat, and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming.” This quote should be hanging in the office of every leader and is one that I have placed at the epicenter of my leadership style and philosophy. It is particularly appropriate for introducing this paper on my leadership style, which has evolved through a series of experiences, mistakes, and shortcomings. It is those shortcomings that have allowed me to develop a leadership style with common threads among its tenants of humility, relatability, positivity, and love (Creating History).

How did I discover and develop these tenants? It was during the summer of 2018, between one of my upper-class years at West Point, that proved formative. It was then that I was assigned to leadership detail as a squad leader for Cadet Field Training (aka CFT), and honestly, I was petrified. The previous summer I had attended the same field training and had an awful experience that included toxic leadership. So, when I heard that I was to return and repeat this training—except this time serving as the leader of five to 10 soldiers—it was a daunting prospect. I repeatedly asked myself,  “I barely survived last summer; how am I going to take this on?” Dutifully, I went forward and accepted my fate. I would be a squad leader at Cadet Field Training, not realizing at the time how incredibly formative the experience would be on my leadership philosophy. This paper was written for my PL300 (Military Leadership) course at West Point in honor of my Reffert’s Rangers who gave me these incredible experiences to begin with. West Point didn’t necessarily teach me to be a leader, it gave me a catacomb to exercise and sharpen what I had already known—and it is for this that I shall forever be grateful.

“The credit belongs to the man in the arena, whose face is marred by dust, and sweat, and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming.”

Unconditional Positive Regard

“Unconditional positive regard” is a term most of us learned in our core psychology class at West Point. It is a counseling theory developed by Carl Rogers, a humanistic psychologist, the theory basically meaning that for a person to grow, they need an environment of acceptance and support regardless of what that person does or says. I turned that phrase and its definition into a leadership style last summer. When I showed up to training, I was determined to make the experience better for those I led than it had been for myself. As my troops arrived, I gave them an initial briefing that included three key points (Psychology Today):

1.)    I don’t know everything, and I do not pretend to. . .but if there is one thing I do know, it is how to take care of and lead soldiers—as the Army is a people’s business.

2.)    I had an awful time at Cadet Field Training and am determined to make this experience better for you than it was for me.

3.)    When things go right, you (my soldiers) will get all the credit. And when things go wrong I will take all responsibility.

This seemed to resonate with the soldiers, and it began the process of trust-building among my formation. Trust is truly the cornerstone of unconditional positive regard as without trust, unconditional positive regard will fail. It seemed to work in this case as I found out after two weeks of building trust among my soldiers. We came upon the first among our battle drills where I, their squad leader, quite frankly had little idea what I was doing. So, I pulled my soldiers aside and explained to them that this was one subject area where I was not particularly confident. And it was in that moment that Rodriguez, one of my team leaders, put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Don’t worry Sergeant. We trust you, and you can trust us with this. We got this.” It was exactly then that I realized that unconditional positive regard had really paid dividends; my theory had worked.

After going through a few iterations of this battle drill, executing it with surprising accuracy and speed, a task force member from the 101st Airborne Division pulled me to the side to tell me that my squad was selected to represent the entire regiment in front of the Chief of Staff the Japanese Armed Forces, General Kōji Yamazaki, that was to visit West Point the next day. “How is this possible?” I asked myself. Here I was, a squad leader who was fairly clueless, barely understanding what I was doing, yet my squad had just been asked to represent the United States of America, its military, its Army, and West Point, before the head of a foreign army and NATO partner.

We performed the next day, doing so with crisp perfection, a sight that almost brought tears to my eyes because at that moment I realized, “I can do this thing we called leadership—and well,” following four years of wondering if I could.

The next morning after that perfect iteration, the Japanese general approached me, asking if I was the group’s leader. I said, “Yes, sir.”

He along with my own leadership congratulated me on such a fine command presence and performance. I passed all the credit to my soldiers—keeping my initial promises: When things went wrong, I took responsibility. . .and when things went right, they took all the credit. This was simply the first instance of me keeping that promise in such a public forum.

It is important to note that unconditional positive regard is not foolproof and that soldiers will, on occasion, let you down. When they do, this “unconditional” tactic can still be used to an advantage. As time went on, as an example, I had to evaluate all my soldiers towards the end of the detail. There was one individual for whom I had fought particularly hard in order to raise her grade. I got my wish, and she did end up getting a higher grade. The next day, there was a scheduled ruck march in the morning. Everybody went out and since I was scheduled to be a timer, I was not in the ruck march myself.

As time passed, the entire company of 140 made their way back on time except for two. . . and one was mine. It was the soldier I had just gone to bat for the day prior, trying to raise her grade. Not only that, but the two in question had decided to stop at a soda machine on their trek—and take a load off and sit down off the course.

One hour passed, two hours passed, two and a half hours passed, until they finally came walking up the road. By this time, a fellow squad leader and I had long planned how we were going to handle this. We knew they weren’t injured.

“Stand at parade rest,” I said. They both knew it was BAD news when I said that. The entire platoon knew me as the positive and happy-go-lucky squad leader who loved them unconditionally. . . but I was not smiling, nor was I happy in this moment. At this point, I let the other squad leader, known for being hard-nosed, take over:

“Are you injured?” that squad leader asked.

“No, Sergeant” they both responded.

“We understand you stopped at a soda machine on your way back. . . leaving the course. . . Is this true?” he continued.

“Yes, Sergeant,” they responded. Ouch. . . they knew they had been caught but didn’t realize we knew.

“You realize the ENTIRE COMPANY has been back for over two hours waiting for you two?” Silence. They knew they had messed up bad. I could see the lump in my soldier’s throat, so I cut in.

“Go back to the barracks. . . we will talk about this later. Go,” I said emphatically.

As the next few hours passed, I calmed down and decided to handle the situation my own way. I went to see the soldier that had messed up. As we walked to sit down, she began apologizing profusely. I told her to save it for later and that I wanted to talk this out with her. I first asked her what she felt had happened, deliberately letting her begin the talk. Once she had finished, I stated my point of view, describing how I had fought for her grade the previous day and that she really let me down. As she began to become emotional, I knew I had made my point. I continued:

“While yes, I am disappointed in you, what was one of the things I tell you guys each       and every day?” I asked.

“That you’d always be proud of us?” she asked in return.

“Exactly—and I still am proud of you. You are better than this. I believe in you,” I said as I brought her in for a hug.

The next morning, the formation was at 0530 sharp. As I went out the door of the run-down metal barracks, I saw that same soldier. She was the first in the formation and already had everyone checked off and ready to go before I even finished putting my own kit on. That is when I knew unconditional positive regard—while not foolproof—had worked.

I plan on putting this tenant to use in the future, using unconditional positive regard alongside Mission Command at the platoon level when I graduate. This could, if implemented and used properly, be a great combination for success as my mentor Dr. Silverstone and I discussed. There are a few PL300 concepts that allude to my tenant of unconditional positive regard, namely the virtues and understanding of character. Character, as I see it in the framework of this situation, is using personal skills and abilities to understand a person to further benefit that person and the broader organization. I tapped into the emotions of my soldiers, using kindness, forgiveness, and love to benefit the development of the individual as well as the entire squad throughout the detail. This was imperative to my effectiveness as a leader, helping me to appear more human and genuine in my ability to express a degree of emotion to my soldiers (Matthews and Lerner, 2018).

Rally Point Leadership

When times get hard, and things don’t go their way, people immediately scramble to look for something or someone to rally around in hopes of finding inspiration and motivation. I discovered this to be true in a rather unique way. Usually in summer training, each company, platoon, and squad is given a nickname or a saying around which to rally. Last summer, for an unknown reason, this didn’t happen in my company. It was per the usual for other companies, but not ours. I never thought about it, as I was more focused on establishing a relationship with my troops, until one night before a long morning ruck march.

We were talking as a broader group about what should be packed out for the Field Training Exercise. No one was looking forward to this ruck march, having just finished some tough training over the previous few days. We started throwing ideas back and forth about what to pack and how much different pieces of gear weighed. “I think that’s a bit over 35 pounds,” responded one of my troops to another troop. I was caught off guard by what one of my troops said next. “We are Reffert’s Rangers, we can handle a little extra weight, no problem!” This stunned me. These guys literally started to self-identify with me as their leader.

As time went on I wondered, “What possessed them to do that?” While I wanted to think it was due to my amazing leadership abilities, I knew that could not be true because I was still the same person who had dreaded taking on this job, being clueless about a good portion of it. Then it hit me: they needed something or someone to rally behind in a tough time, and they chose to rally around me. This proved quite a moving realization for me.

This realization then begged the question, “Why did they choose to rally around me?” After our final out-process counseling sessions, I discovered the answer. When I asked all 10 of my “Reffert’s Rangers” to give me one thing that they would be taking away from this detail, the answer was the same across the board: “The way you cared about us and loved us even when we messed up.” Again—to me, this was a surreal realization. I had studied Sun Tzu for years at this point, and I had lived up to one of his most famous quotes on leadership: “Regard your soldiers as your children, and they will follow you into the deepest valleys; look on them as your own beloved sons, and they will stand by you even unto death.”

The concepts outlined in my rally-point leadership tenant align very closely to the idea of cohesive teams. My troops used me as a rallying point to create a bond and a closeness to establish cohesiveness as a second-order effect. As I discussed this idea with my mentor, I realized that I could use this tenant moving forward if ever in a unit with toxic higher leadership. While there’s very little that can be done to get out of such a situation, through my presence I can give soldiers (whether in my platoon or another platoon) something to rally around in dark times. This, like unconditional positive regard, is also imperative to my effectiveness as a leader; I want to be a figure my soldiers feel comfortable with and be viewed as approachable regarding their issues. I have been in situations where I had unapproachable leadership as an enlisted soldier, and it was not a good feeling. If my soldiers ever feel they cannot approach me with their problems or feelings, I will have failed as a leader (Bullis and Eslinger, 2018).

Positive Leadership

Yankee third-baseman Wade Boggs once said, “A positive attitude causes a chain reaction of positive thoughts, events, and outcomes. It is a catalyst and it sparks extraordinary results.” This quote represents the power of positivity, and it relates to another story that comes out of last summer’s experience as a Combat Field Training Squad Leader. The story comes from an unexpected source, a soldier in another squad within my platoon, and it involves an experience that occurred on a day when I felt I could do nothing right, no matter how hard I tried.

We were in the middle of our five-day Field Training Exercise, and I was feeling defeated—until something unexpected happened. As I was walking to my rucksack, I heard a voice behind me say, “Sergeant Reffert, you are the best squad leader ever.” As I turned around, I was surprised to see Alana, a soldier I had mentored and “adopted” as an honorary Reffert’s Ranger, since she did not get along well with her own squad leader. I was caught off guard and didn’t know what to say. I thanked her and told her that it meant a lot, because I was having a tough day. As I was about to walk away, another soldier from that same squad echoed Alan’s sentiments by saying, “Yes, you are. Not because of what you know, but because of who you are. You are always positive and care about everyone whether they’re in your squad or not.” If Alana left me at a loss for words, this additional comment nearly knocked the wind out of me, and I had to stop myself from choking up.

Fast forward to this past March. Alana got back in touch with me for some help on a presentation she was to give. As I was helping her out at her desk, her roommate walked in. I introduced myself and said, “Alana was a trooper I adopted this past summer during CFT.” Alana stopped me and said, “Not just me, you adopted the entire platoon. People from other companies would come and talk to you if they had a problem or needed to talk. You were always so positive, and it lifted us up. We all loved you and still do!” She was right, I was always positive—even if I had to clench my teeth to do it, but I didn’t think it would leave such a long-lasting impact. Positivity worked. It made my persona shine so bright that it was hard for anyone to say anything negative about me as a leader, and people huddled around me in hard times. It was nice to be known for that.

A positive attitude causes a chain reaction of positive thoughts, events, and outcomes. It is a catalyst and it sparks extraordinary results

Some argue that this positivity theory doesn’t work if the positivity is disingenuous, since people will see right through it. That is entirely true. The key, in my view, is to approach everything with a positive outlook from the start, so that the positivity becomes second nature in every situation; it should be a habit developed genuinely over time. However, I will add a caveat:  positivity requires one to develop keen emotional intelligence—an understanding not just of individual behaviors but that of entire organizations. That understanding is necessary in order to respond appropriately to situations, such as not displaying positivity in certain serious situations. Emotional intelligence as we learned it in PL300 presents a unique and important challenge to my theory of positivity in leadership (Lin and Britt, 2018).

Positivity is an important foundation for everything I do as a leader, and going forward I plan to rely on this important tenant of leadership in every position I hold. By practicing this positivity, I hope to perfect its use as a seriously powerful tool. As with the previous two tenants addressed, positivity shines light on my very genuine personality, making it incredibly important to my leadership effectiveness.

Concluding Thoughts

While these tenants have worked for me, it is important to point out that they worked with the cards I was dealt at the time. That’s not to say they will work in other circumstances with other people. Mac Anderson, the founder of Inspire Kindness said, “Great leadership usually starts with a willing heart, a positive attitude, and a desire to make a difference.” Anderson hit the nail on the head if I relate that to my experience with leadership. While at first I dreaded serving as a leader, I eventually grew to have a “willing heart,” as Anderson describes it, and accepted my squad leadership position. I used positivity as a staple of my leadership style while trying to make the detail better for my soldiers than it had been for me. In my heart, I succeeded. Even though I didn’t have all the answers, to this day my soldiers remember me with deep love and a respect for the leadership style I demonstrated. There is no greater reward for me than knowledge of that, and it was these tenants that enabled that to happen.

My PL300 Course mentor, Dr. Scott Silverstone, played a great role in helping me develop and organize these leadership tenants within my leadership philosophy. Through our discussions, he helped me realize that I could implement all three tenants simultaneously if I used them correctly. My greatest concern, however, was that while the tenants worked in the specific instances I portrayed, they might not work in others, and I wasn’t sure how I would then respond. Dr. Silverstone, on the other hand, was convinced that I would not have to stray far from these tenants, particularly positivity, and I was relieved to hear that opinion. We also discussed at length other weights of leadership that I will be expected to bear. Not only will my soldiers look to me for leadership, their wives, children, parents, brothers, and sisters will also be placing their trust in me, the trust that I will lead each and every soldier as though they are the greatest of treasures.

Works Cited

Bullis, C., Eslinger, N. M. (2018). Developing Cohesive Teams. . In Smith, Swain, Brazil, Cornwell, Britt, Bond, Eslinger, and Eljdid (Eds.), West Point leadership. New York, NY: Rowan Technology Solutions.

Kukolic, S., & Kukolic, S. (2017, May 30). The Frame We Put Around Our Circumstances. Retrieved from https://www.huffpost.com/entry/the-frame-we-put-around-our-circumstances_b_592d9f4be4b0a7b7b469cd82.

Lin, E. X., Britt, K. P. (2018). Emotional Intelligence: From Controversy to Common Ground. In Smith, Swain, Brazil, Cornwell, Britt, Bond, Eslinger, and Eljdid (Eds.), West Point leadership. New York, NY: Rowan Technology Solutions.

Matthews, M.D. Lerner, R.M. (2018). Leaders of Character: Striving Toward Virtuous Leadership. In Smith, Swain, Brazil, Cornwell, Britt, Bond, Eslinger, and Eljdid (Eds.), West Point leadership. New York, NY: Rowan Technology Solutions.

Sun Tzu quotes. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://thinkexist.com/quotation/regard_your_soldiers_as_your_children-and_they/149707.html

Theodore Roosevelt – Man in the Arena Speech. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.creatinghistory.com/theodore-roosevelt-man-in-the-arena-speech/.


Cadet Jeffrey A. Reffert was born in Kovrov, Russia, on August 15th, 1996, was adopted by Gary and Janice Reffert in January 1997 and raised in North Ridgeville, OH. Growing up in North Ridgeville, Cadet Reffert developed a deep sense of gratitude for all the blessings his adopted country that had provided him a life, a family, and a home, and in January 2014, as a junior at North Ridgeville High School, Cadet Reffert enlisted in the United States Army Reserves.

He attended U.S. Army Basic Combat Training at Fort Jackson, SC the following summer between his junior and senior years and served as a Private to Private First Class in the 2d Psychological Operations Group. During his senior year of high school, Cadet Reffert was nominated by the 21st Secretary of the United States Army, John M. McHugh to attend the U.S. Military Academy Preparatory School’s Class of 2016 at West Point. Upon completion of a year at the Preparatory School, Cadet Reffert was appointed to attend West Point by the 44th President of the United States, Barack H. Obama, and will graduate with the Class of 2020.

Currently, Cadet Reffert is a Defense and Strategic Studies major with a focus in Grand Strategy and Generalship and is entering his last year at West Point. He belongs to the West Point Fishing Club, which many prominent former graduates such as President Dwight D. Eisenhower, and General Norman H. Schwarzkopf had once belonged. Cadet Reffert also was is member of the International Affairs Forum, as well as the Domestic Affairs Forum. He belongs to the Cadet Ambassador Program and gives many tours of West Point to multitudes of people, including American and foreign VIPs such as presidents, vice presidents, prime ministers, generals, congressmen, and many foreign heads of state.

West Point also has afforded Cadet Reffert many unique opportunities to serve. In the summer of 2018, Cadet Reffert served in the U.S. Central Command Headquarters under General Joseph L. Votel, and Major General Edward F. Dorman III, where he was able to watch the Global War on Terror commence at the strategic level and understand the daily operations of a combatant command. In March of 2019, Cadet Reffert worked as an intern at the White House Historical Association in Washington D.C., where he helped the White House conduct and publish historical research. In the Summer of 2019, Cadet Reffert will serve as an intern in the Executive Office of the President where he will be tasked with assisting in overseeing the general administration of the entire Executive Office in the Office of Administration. In the Office of Administration, he will provide administrative services to all entities of the Executive Office of the President, including direct support services to the President of the United States.

Cadet Jeffrey Reffert can be reached at:

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